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How good would the Sixers be under a James Harden holdout scenario?

Sadly, we may have to discuss another season where the Philadelphia 76ers have an All-Star-sized hole in their roster and cap sheet.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Six Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Believe it or not, the 2023-24 NBA season isn’t that far away. The Philadelphia 76ers play their first preseason game on Oct. 8 in Boston, just over six weeks from now.

As James Harden publicly proclaimed, much to the detriment of his own wallet, the Sixers are not meeting his trade request with anywhere near the expediency he would like. We’re not far off from things potentially getting very uncomfortable, with Harden maybe trying to report to the team in full disruptor mode in order to grease the wheels on trade talks. However things transpire between Harden and the team, it’s fully within the range of outcomes that the Sixers start the season without a trade and James simply sitting at home waiting for a call about a trade.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because the Sixers went through an alarmingly similar scenario just two years ago with Ben Simmons. We saw Ben practice with a practice jersey stuffed in his pocket that sure looked a lot like a phone. Doc Rivers would later kick Simmons out of practice for refusing to participate in team drills. Simmons would not suit up again for the Sixers, getting traded to Brooklyn as part of the package for James Harden prior to the February trade deadline.

Having a guy who made an All-Star game the prior year sitting at home playing Call of Duty isn’t ideal from a team-building perspective, but the Sixers weathered the storm very well under the circumstances during the 2021-22 season. Philadelphia was 35-23 (a .603 winning percentage) prior to Harden’s debut with the team on Feb. 25 in Minnesota. They were slightly better following Harden’s arrival, finishing 16-8 from Feb. 25 through the end of the season, but the rest of the roster certainly held their own amidst the distractions.

How would things go for the Sixers with Harden sitting out under similar circumstances this season? As fed up with Harden as many of us are now, he likely deserved to make an All-Star team last season and led the league in assists. Even if you’re high on Jaden Springer’s potential, you don’t just slot him and Pat Beverley into those minutes and expect nothing to change.

Certainly though, you could point to that Simmons-less stretch as a sign of optimism for the upcoming season. Joel Embiid has only added to his game since then and Tyrese Maxey has expanded his arsenal quite a bit. However, that squad had Seth Curry averaging 15 points per game while shooting 40 percent from 3, Matisse Thybulle still in “everyone is high on him as this elite defender” stage of his Sixers career, Georges Niang shooting over 40 percent from 3 off the bench, Danny Green as a wing option still shooting 38 percent from downtown, and Andre Drummond playing capable backup big minutes. Do De’Anthony Melton, an increased role for Paul Reed, and P.J. “I’m not flippin’ on my bros” Tucker match that former level of production? I’d argue no.

So you’d expect a drop-off from last year’s .659 winning percentage, both because of Harden’s absence and the rotation losses in free agency this summer. Philadelphia would likely be below the .603 clip from the Simmons holdout era as well. But any team with Embiid and Maxey as a starting point as going to be an above-.500 squad. We’re probably looking at somewhere between the fifth and seventh spots in the Eastern Conference standings. Milwaukee and Boston remain the class of the conference, Cleveland continues to climb as their young core develops, and New York builds upon the continuity from a season ago. I’d wager the Sixers would be right around with Miami (although the Heat could rise depending on how the Damian Lillard saga shakes out), Brooklyn, and whoever bubbles up out of the .500 morass (Chicago, Atlanta, Indiana or Orlando?).

If the trade deadline is approaching, the Sixers are sitting in sixth place in the East, and Daryl Morey is still looking at uninspiring deals for Harden that include expiring contracts and maybe one ho-hum pick, I doubt he’d view the team as a big buyer. He’d probably cut his losses with Harden, get what he could and keep the cap space plan intact for the upcoming summer.

So unless Harden drastically changes his mindset or the Clippers or another team get desperate at some point and up the ante, we could be looking at the Sixers hitting the road for Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs. You can’t lose in the second round again if you don’t make the second round, right?

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